Epicurus is widely credited with being the first philosopher to formally state this challenge to the logic of God's existence (or, in his case, the existence of gods). Nevertheless, many atheists and agnostics have employed this same line of reasoning to disprove the Judeo-Christian conceptions of God. Epicurus and his followers suggest that the presence of evil in our world presents some profound philosophical problems for those who believe in a God that is supreme, benevolent and aware. The basic argument is that there are three conclusions available to us: 1) God wants to remove evil, but is unable to do so; 2)God has the ability to remove evil, but will not do it; 3) God is able and willing to remove evil. If the first conclusion is admitted, God is shown to not be supreme. If the second conclusion is accepted, God is shown to not be benevolent. If the third premise is approved, then why does evil exist in our world? If we answer that question by stating that God is unaware of its existence, then the belief in a God that is aware is shown to be unjustified!
Although some folks have chosen to get around this apparent conundrum by denying the existence of evil, the overwhelming majority of folks on this planet (both theistic and atheistic) acknowledge it. However, if we are willing to acknowledge the existence of evil, doesn't that necessarily demonstrate the existence of good? Doesn't that, in turn, present some philosophical problems for atheists and agnostics? If "good" is a random or arbitrary occurrence, then what makes it "better" than evil? If we appeal to our own perspective as defining the difference between the two, doesn't that make any difference purely subjective and without real value to any objective determination of the difference? Is good really good, or does it just depend on where you're standing at the moment? Also, is it possible that how we define good and evil may differ from the way the Almighty defines them?
Getting back to Epicurus and his disciples, I would answer their questions with a consideration of the elements of time, causation and God's overall purpose/plan. Is it fair or logical to reach conclusions about the existence of a supreme, benevolent and aware God without examining these elements relative to the existence of evil?
Scientists have estimated the age of the universe at approximately 13.8 billion years. Likewise, it is generally accepted that our earth has been around for about 4.5 billion years. Fossil, archeological and genetic evidence suggest that modern humans have lived on this earth for about 200,000 years. If we take the lesser figure (the age of the earth, which is about one third the age of the universe) and compare it to the entire record of human history and suffering, we begin to see that time may be very important to this discussion. If my calculations are correct (the amount of time humans have existed divided by the age of the earth), then the entire time of human existence would account for only a small pinpoint on even a very condensed timeline representing the age of this planet. When we are discussing time on this scale, a one hundred year old person's entire lifetime appears as less than the blink of an eye!
In short, the Creator's perspective on time has to be very different from our own. Forget for a moment that some Cosmologists have theorized that time itself is an illusion. If we accept that the passage of time is a valid and "real" concept, then we must admit that our perspective on it is so limited as to be almost useless in evaluating its impact on this discussion. After all, Scripture does indicate that the passage of a thousand years for the Lord is the equivalent of the passage of one day for us! (Psalm 90:4 and II Peter 3:8) Hence, from the perspective of eternity, we can readily see why Paul would characterize a lifetime of suffering as momentary. (II Corinthians 4:17)
In addition to the element of time, we must also consider the factors that have produced the evil that we behold around us. Once again, it is instructive to ask ourselves a few questions about the causation of evil. Did God create evil? Is God the source of the evil around us? Did God create Satan the devil? Do we play any role in the creation and perpetuation of evil? Who is responsible for the wars, inquisitions, persecutions and holocausts that have marred human history? We call natural occurrences like tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis "Acts of God." We also characterize the consequences of these disasters as evil. Is God responsible for them because "He" created the forces that produce them? Do people have any culpability in these evils for building dwellings without storm shelters, along coastal lowlands or on top of fault lines? Has science ever demonstrated that our personal or collective behavior has ever contributed to the formation or progression of disease or famine? In short, is it fair to lay everything that happens at God's doorstep? Do things ever just happen, or has everything been preordained by the Creator? Is everything that happens someone's fault?
Scripture informs us that God did not create Satan the devil. We are told that an angel (God did create the angel) named Lucifer decided on his own to rebel against the Lord and pursue an evil course. (Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28) Scripture also informs us that humankind made their own decision to reject God's notions about what constituted "good and evil" and make that determination for themselves. (Genesis 3) Solomon wrote that sometimes things just happen, and that no one should be blamed or credited for their occurrence. (Ecclesiastes 9:11) Likewise, Scripture informs us that none other than Jesus Christ taught the same thing about happenstance. (Luke 13:1-5)
Finally, we must also consider the element of a Divine purpose or plan in the things that happen on this earth - good and bad. Does God have some purpose or plan for humans? Is there meaning to our existence? Is there meaning to our suffering? Scripture informs us that God does indeed have a plan and/or purpose.(Romans 8:28, Ephesians 1:11 and 3:11) The message of the Bible is that God wants to make us all a part of "His" family - that "He" wants us to share eternal life with him. (Romans 6:23 and 8:14-39) The ultimate vision of the Bible pictures a world in which there won't be any more pain, suffering or sorrow - a world where evil will be banished forever. (Revelation 21:4-5) Hence, God does have the ability and the will to destroy evil.
The Bible also reveals that individual participation in this plan is voluntary, not mandatory. In this sense, the temporary existence of evil makes sense. The "good" is clearly contrasted with the "evil." Humanity has been permitted to see just a snapshot of the awful reality of "evil" (remember the time element mentioned earlier). In this way, although "He" is not the source of the evil, God has used it to make our decision easier - to clearly delineate the choices before us. Moreover, contrary to popular traditional opinion, the rejection of God's offer does not result in an eternity in flaming torment - the Bible teaches that eternal death is the consequence for the rejection of God's offer. Additionally, fairness and common sense dictate that the parameters of the plan (and God's perspective on good and evil) would have to be fully understood by those judged to have rejected it/them. In other words, the Lake of Fire will not be populated with ignorant masses of miserable people who have been cheated out of an opportunity to have something better.